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Geography the great door opener

The class of ’68 return to the lecture hall to hear current Head of Department Professor Donald Houston talk about the subject and department 50 years after they graduated CREDIT: Ken Colley

What do Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, academia, HR, maps, business, warfare, religious ministry and the environment have in common?

The answer: Geography.

Or, more precisely, the class of 1968 – the first full geography cohort to graduate from the-then Portsmouth College of Technology who went forth into what became very varied careers.

The class of ‘68 recently reunited at the University of Portsmouth to mark their graduation 50 years ago.

They’d studied together, graduating with either a BA or a BSc in geography, and they shared stories of seeing Jefferson Airplane and Bob Dylan perform at the first Isle of Wight festival, of occasional run-ins with the college authorities over not wanting to live in student accommodation in Gosport, and how diverse their careers were, given they’d begun with the same degree.

(l-r) Geography lecturers past and present: Derek Mottershead (taught the class of ’68), David Burtenshaw (taught the class of ’68), Donald Houston (current head of department), John Chapman (taught the class of ’68) and Paul Farres (recent lecturer in geography) CREDIT: Ken Colley

At a time in the UK when only three per cent of the population had a university degree, the world was their oyster.

Some had gone into teaching, others into business and management, town planning, higher education, the probation service, environmental assessment and management, the Anglican ministry, the library service.

One, Roger Marsden, said chain surveying on Southsea Common had turned out to be the perfect practice for his later work in Uganda, and that his love of maps had become a career.

Roger was hired as an assistant map researcher for the military, learning to find and update maps of whatever region Britain had a politically fraught relationship with. His career took him to Hong Kong where he spent five years trying to source maps of south-east Asia. Later, he was involved with a small group of mapping specialists working with US intelligence.

The class of 1968, some with husbands and wives, when they returned to Portsmouth to mark 50 years since they graduated CREDIT: Ken Colley

Many went on to have second careers, even more diverse, including running their own businesses and, for one, managing the environmental impact of pipe-laying in the remotest part of Alaska.

It turns out geography – officially, the study of the planet and those who live on it – opens doors to the widest imaginable choice of careers.

“That’s because it teaches you how to think, it’s multidisciplinary, it makes you adaptable,” said Micheline Hawkings, who chose to study it first because town planning was, in the mid-Sixties, the most fashionable career.

“But it was the Sixties,” she said, “and I went off the idea of town planning.”

Micheline instead became a systems analyst, then worked in human resources, before starting her own international recruitment company. She also learned French along the way.

“Geography gives you the capacity to learn other things,” she said.

The detectives: Brian Jones and Geoff Northin spent years tracking down their former classmates CREDIT: Ken Colley

When the group graduated, the average salary was £895 a year, the average price of a house in southeast England was £3,903, and the average cost of a new car was £1,000.

The old friends spoke of how geography had instilled in them a strong appreciation of travel and landscapes, especially dramatic landscapes.

“I love volcanic landscapes,” one said. “I’d drive a lot of miles to see a volcanic cone.”

Another had spent the first few years of his marriage walking with his wife and eventually their young children the entire length of the coast of the British Isles.

To graduate in 1968, the group were tested in nine three-hour exams at the end of their studies. It was a pass or fail outcome, with no way back for those who didn’t make the grade.

One classmate didn’t, and was never seen again, but for the remaining 39, a handful have died and 27 are still in contact, having been reassembled by the detective work of former classmates Brian Jones and Geoff Northin.

Brian said: “I searched the internet, social media, birth and death records, electoral rolls, I searched every possible way I could to get us all back together.”

In 2000, Brian bought his first computer and was able to start using the internet. But this was before the days of search engines which, like Google, grouped people and things together, so it proved less helpful initially than old fashioned letter writing and telephone calls.

Social media was in its infancy, and many more people now had access to the web and to each other, but it wasn’t until 2015, when the group realised that year would mark the 50th anniversary of their course starting, in 1965, that the idea of a reunion took shape.

(l-r) Derek Mottershead (taught the class of ’68), Alan Burnett, DB, JC, (who all taught the class o0f ’68). Dominic Fontana (recently retired geography lecturer) and, front, Ray Riley (who taught class of ’68) CREDIT: Ken Colley

He found one former classmate mentioned in a golfing report in a small town newspaper.

He found another on Facebook.

Then website Friends Reunited came to his attention and he found four classmates in quick succession.

They also found three of the original class of ’68 had died tragically young.

Most, he found, had remained in the area they’d come from, but some had moved great distances.

Peter Hanley left the UK for Canada immediately after graduating and after some years there, moved to Alaska, where he has since worked on billion-dollar oil engineering projects in the permafrost covered northern slopes of America’s wildest outpost.

Peter said: “The thing about geography is it gives you such a wide set of skills; you learn to write well, you’re a geologist, you know environmental laws, you are taught to think strategically. These are all vital for working in environmental science with big industry.”

Peter had made an enormous contribution to the organisation  and management of the 2018 reunion from his home in Alaska, working several hours on most days for the past year. He then made a reconnaissance visit to Portsmouth in 2017 so he could negotiate rates with hotels for his former classmates and liaise with other organisations locally which they wanted to visit.

The current Head of Geography at the University, Professor Donald Houston, said: “It was a sheer delight to have so many of our class of ’68 visit us. They gave careers talks to our current students, which were truly fascinating and inspirational.

“I always knew a Geography degree develops a range of ‘transferable’ skills relevant to a range of geographical and non-geographical professions, such as communication, problem-solving, data analysis, but what the class of ’68 brought home to me was that the breadth and variety of topics that they had to learn in Geography gave them a confidence and adaptability to take on new challenges and respond positively to changes in employment throughout their working lives.”

What else happened in 1968:

  • Yachtsman Alec Rose sails into Portsmouth after a 354-day round-the-world trip.
  • Harold Wilson is prime minister
  • Martin Luther King is assassinated
  • Billie Jean King wins Wimbledon tennis championship
  • Yale admits female students for the first time
  • BBC’s long-running series Dad’s Army starts broadcasting
  • Led Zeppelin perform live for the first time, at Surrey University
  • Kylie Minogue is born; so is future Bond Daniel Craig
  • In the UK, a litre of fuel cost 7 pence
  • 850 women machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham went on strike over equal pay
  • West Bromwich Albion win the FA Cup


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